The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Rising Researcher

Breaking Boundaries

Talented undergraduates find their path through research
  • Rising Researcher students standing on the steps of Hillside with the Chancellor.

Hands-on research is a hallmark of undergraduate education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Rebecca Castonguay ’19 knew little about mathematical modeling for disease when she signed on to Professor Hari Balasubramanian’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) team in the summer of 2018. An industrial engineering major, she was recruited by Balasubramanian after he noticed her high academic performance and particularly strong mathematical and programming skills. “Rebecca is the best industrial engineering undergraduate student I have taught in my ten years at UMass Amherst,” says Balasubramanian.

As part of her summer research, and now her honors thesis, Castonguay developed new models to understand the mathematical structures of networks of contacts between people during infectious disease epidemics. “Rebecca developed a new neural network model for estimating degree correlations and is in the process of using that to develop more accurate contact generation algorithms, which are key to improving accuracy of epidemic predictions,” says Castonguay’s thesis advisor Chaitra Gopalappa.  She adds, “This new method has the potential for broad impact for surveillance and control of emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and MERS. Results on test cases are promising.”

“I am fascinated with the mathematical models behind systems and how we can manipulate and create these models to make decisions that will help improve the system as a whole,” says Castonguay. “My ultimate goal is to have a positive impact on those around me and, after this summer of research, I firmly believe that engineering will help me to achieve this goal.”

Public health and biochemistry dual- degree student, Aastha Pokharel ’19, joined Professor Laura Vandenberg’s lab as a STEM Ambassador, a program that helps connect underrepresented minority students with research advisors. Under Vandenberg’s direction, Pokharel conducted two independent projects investigating environmental influences on mammary gland function and development.

Pokharel’s first project examined the natural left- right asymmetry of the developing mammary gland. “Aastha’s work demonstrated that the left and right glands have inherent differences – their size and proliferation rates are different. This research is important because there is a left/right bias in breast cancer risk,” says Vandenberg. Pokharel’s results have been published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, with Pokharel as first author.

“My research experience at UMass Amherst has been a transformative experience, to say the least…  [it] has not only expanded my knowledge in the field of environmental health sciences, but, with the completion of every project and every accomplishment along the way, has given me more confidence in my abilities,” says Pokharel.

Her second project, which characterized the effects of environmental history on growth parameters in the mouse mammary gland, also resulted in a journal article with Pokharel as second author. She and Vandenberg are now in the process of converting her thesis into a manuscript for publication this spring.

“My projects have also given me the motivation to continue furthering my education,” says Pokharel. “I am enrolled in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences 4+1 M.S. Environmental Health Sciences program and I will be working toward acquiring a graduate degree in the next year.”

Constance Roberts ’19 is a double major in the History of Art and Architecture and German and Scandinavian Studies. Her research concerns neglected female artists, the history of scholarship regarding them, and the contributions of their artwork to depicting and solidifying a national identity. Her investigations focus on Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933), whose painted gesso panels serve as visual centerpieces in Scottish tearooms. The panels helped shape the interiors of buildings designed by her famous husband, the Art Nouveau architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

“Constance shows a keen sensitivity to how art relates to place,” say her thesis advisor Professor Timothy Rohan. “On another level, she has explored how the murals were shaped by early twentieth-century feminism, the Celtic Revival and Scottish Nationalism. Her thesis challenges modernist definitions of innovation and collaboration and promises to substantially reposition Mackintosh within the history of art,” says Rohan.

Roberts says her thesis is the culmination of many exceptional research experiences at UMass. In 2018, she won a grant from the UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College, which allowed her to travel to Scotland to see the murals in January of this year. She also presented a highly original interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este at a graduate research confer and her “Emily Carr’s Zunoqua of the Cat Village and the Moment of Colonization,” was published in the journal Aisthesis.

“Constance consistently challenges traditional intellectual boundaries and engages in independent thinking, informed by broad cultural and historical understanding. She has made and will continue to make significant contributions to the field when she pursues a PhD in Art History towards a curatorial or academic career,” notes Rohan.

Allyson Rosati ’19, a double major in Spanish and biochemistry and molecular biology, joined Richard Pilsner’s environmental health sciences lab in the fall of her sophomore year where she quickly demonstrated her research independence. Her first assignment was to assist graduate students in research relating exposure to endocrine disrupting environmental contaminants, specifically phthalates and phenols, to mitochondrial DNA biomarkers and to oxidative stress.

“This introduction to research led me to two poster presentations, one co-authored paper published in the journal Environmental Research, and priceless bench work experience,” says Rosati.

For her Commonwealth Honors College thesis, Rosati is working on a new collaborative project from the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility in the Environment (LIFE) Study, a prospective cohort study by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The project investigates the associations of sperm mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNAcn) on couples’ ability to become pregnant, as measured by time-to-pregnancy (TTP).

“An enormous amount of work was needed to begin our study,” says Pilsner. “Allyson spent the next year generating data for sperm mtDNAcn, while learning to use statistical programming languages to run her own analyses.  Her results revealed that sperm mtDNAcn was associated with a two-fold longer TTP, suggesting the utility of sperm mtDNAcn as a biomarker to predict couples’ ability to become pregnant. She will present her results at the Society for the Study of Reproduction’s Annual meeting and will graduate with two first-authored and one co-authored manuscripts. This is a truly remarkable feat for an undergraduate,” adds Pilsner.

Theater major Garrett Sager ’19, produced, directed and performed in QUEER & NOW, a two-year-long theatrical project with specific iterations structured as evenings of vignettes that provide potential futures for identity, gender, sexuality, community, and kinship. His Honors thesis centers on drag and lip syncing as modes of radical celebration and liberation for queer people and communities.

QUEER & NOW has had three major iterations, all selling to sold-out crowds and garnering rave reviews. Faculty members have noted that QUEER & NOW is “a show with heart and style, with long-term potential,” “exuberant and ground-breaking” and “a beautiful and life-affirming dance party...exquisite.” Students have noted the impact of the QUEER & NOW series as well, emphasizing its “message of unapologetic pride and radical inclusivity” that is able to “transport its audiences to a parallel dimension…fierce, riotous, and energetic.”

Sager took the latest version of QUEER & NOW to the New York Professional Outreach Program space in Manhattan this past March, “a considerable producorial undertaking” says Harley Erdman, Sager’s advisor and Honors thesis chair. “He is now writing a sophisticated academic paper as his honors research thesis, using QUEER & NOW as an example of how to queer gender and rethink our relationship to our environment. I have been supervising honors theses regularly for 25 years, and Garrett's thesis, augmented by his independent projects last year, constitute the single finest honors thesis that I have supervised in my UMass career,” says Erdman.

Microbiology major Olivia Venezia ’19 always imagined becoming a doctor prior to attending UMass Amherst. Her undergraduate research experiences working in Professor Alicia Timme-Laragy’s Environmental Health Sciences lab changed that.

“Over the past four years I have become passionate about a career in research,” says Venezia.

Venezia investigates how embryonic exposures to toxicants affect pancreas development. As a senior thesis project she is independently investigating the role of cell transcription factors PPAR (Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors) in altered pancreatic development. Impaired regulation of this transcription factor, essential for fat regulation, may contribute to the toxic effects of these compounds in the pancreas.

Among her many accomplishments is a nationally competitive Pfizer Undergraduate Travel Award to attend and present her research at the national Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting, in Baltimore in March 2019. At the conference, she received an award for her work from the Molecular & Systems Biology Specialty Section.  Venezia is also a co-author on two published manuscripts and three others that will be submitted for publication over the next year.

“Olivia is a fantastic representation of undergraduate research at UMass on both the regional and national stage. Her quiet, unassuming leadership in the lab over the past few years will be greatly missed when she graduates,” says Timme-Laragy.

“I hope that working in research will provide me with continued learning experiences in a field that I love,” says Venezia. “I am sure that the skills I have gained at UMass, and in the Timme-Laragy lab, will guide my future success.”

All six Rising Researchers are students in the Commonwealth Honors College.

Karen J. Hayes '85